Hummingbirds are amazing. They are so tiny and their little wings flutter so fast. Fun facts: hummingbirds can hover in the air without moving in any direction. They are also the only bird that can fly backwards! Hummingbirds pump their little wings up and down so fast that they don't even flap... they buzz - or hum, I guess. They sound like big bugs.
I'm always thinking about capturing the interesting sounds that surround me... I've been familiar with the little hummingbird my whole life; it's about time I tried to record one in action. I headed up north to a family cabin one weekend this May and made it my mission to record some hummingbirds. Now, before you get the idea that I was about to crawl through the mosquito-infested woods with my recorder and boom pole in pursuit of a bird no bigger than a cherry tomato... there is an easier way: to attract a hummingbird all you need is a hummingbird feeder filled up with a mix of sugar and water. I set the feeder up outside the cabin and rigged up my Sony D-50 with gaffer tape to the same porch brace the the feeder was hanging from, hit record and left the recorder running. Hummingbirds can be a little shy about getting too close to humans, and since I don’t have a way to trigger record on the D-50 from a distance, I had to simply let it roll for a few hours in hopes that a few hummingbirds would come to take a drink.
Maybe they didn't like the look of that fuzzy thing hanging off the beam. After 2 hours of recording the feeder I ended up with only about 30 seconds of hummingbird action, but it was a glorious 30 seconds. Take a listen:
The next morning I decided to take another run at recording the elusive hummingbird, but with a revised plan. This time I decided to use a shotgun mic going into my Sound Devices 702. This way I would not need to be in record for hours on end since I could run a mic cable a few meters, take a seat and manually trigger record whenever a hummingbird made a move on the feeder. The 702 has a pre-roll of 2 seconds in record mode, and this turned out to be enough to catch them on approach, since the birds swoop in with lightning speed.
So I spent the next 3 or 4 hours sitting in a lawn chair with my headphones on and my finger ready on the record button. Sitting quietly in a comfy chair may not sound like a heroic enterprise to you but let me tell you, it was damn near a suicide mission. This is northern Ontario, the month is May: the absolute peak time and place for murderous bloodsucking mosquitoes and blackflies. I was almost eaten alive while sitting and waiting for the hummingbirds to come take a sip, and those little guys made me wait and wait.
For all my suffering I got quite a few good recordings of the hummingbirds. I would have gotten more if it were not for the busy boat traffic on the river nearby and the construction of a new cabin down the road a bit. A few hummingbird fly-bys were ruined by the noisy surroundings, but luckily a lot of the recordings happened to slip in between the cutting saws and speeding boats. Here are a few of the birds recorded on day two:
I was fairly satisfied with the recordings I was able to get, and the weekend was over so I headed home. The following week I was off to another cabin on a lake nearly 400 km (240 miles) away from the previous weekend's destination. I got out my gear again and set up to record some hummingbirds at this new location. Jackpot! This place was Hummingbird Central. In a couple of hours I had recorded more of the little birds than I had in two full days the weekend before. The downside was that it was much windier in this second location. This made the leaves rustling in the trees much louder and since this cabin was on a lake rather than a river I had to contend with waves rolling in on the shore as well. These things added up to a much louder ambient noise level in the recordings. Despite those obstacles I was able to get a lot of great hummingbird wing-flutter. Take a listen:
One of the challenges of this undertaking was setting proper levels. Hummingbird wings are a fairly subtle sound, so I set the gain on my recorders fairly high. To illustrate how quiet the birds are, here is a video taken with the camera about 5 feet away from the hummingbirds. For the first few seconds of the clip you will hear the camera mic, then the audio will switch over to the Sony D-50’s mics.
As you can hear, the hummingbird's wings are not even registering on the camera mic just a few feet away. Yet the Sony was able to really zone-in on the flutter amid all the ambient noise in the surrounding environment.
I will keep trying to record these amazing little birds in future trips out into the wilderness; hopefully one day I will come across perfect conditions with no wind and calm waters so I can capture a pristine recording of the hummingbird's wings. Until then, these will be the next best thing.
If you want to add some selected free hummingbird wing sounds to your sound effects library, please go to the Downloads page on this site and pull down the Hummingbird Wings SFX pack. While you're at it, follow me on Twitter or subscribe to the RSS feed on this site and catch any new fx I offer through this site.
As a bonus, also included in the free download is this recording of an unknown insect (it was blue, and was huge!) bouncing its body off the plastic hummingbird feeder trying to get at the sugar water inside. It sounds amazing!
Here are some more photos of the hummingbirds feeding. They don't stay still for long so getting these pictures was even trickier than getting the sounds: